Rave reviews have lauded Francis Spufford’s 2012 foray into the field of Christian apologetics, titled “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.” Commentators praise his freshness, intelligence, sensibility, and novel approach. Even Christianity Today, that bastion of Evangelicalism, gave the work a glowing review.
For my part, I thought the book was utter rot.
The fact that Unapologetic has been so well liked is deeply troubling to me. It tells me that these reviewers are unaware of the book’s errors. It implies that they are blinded to the deeply troubling assumptions which underlie Spufford’s un-apologetic. As a consequence I am led to suspect that the appeal of the book—its seeming ‘freshness, intelligence, and sensibility’—is grounded in the fact that it is a thoroughly cultural book. I don’t mean that in a good way. It is a book which conforms so readily to the spirit of the present age—sounds so good to the modern ear—precisely because it lacks the distinctive Christian elements which challenge and undercut modern culture. Spufford’s book outlines a fundamentally accommodated Christianity, and because of that, far from being the next best apologetic, it is an insidiously dangerous work. You might like what you read. What you read will not have been very Christian.
So, then, what is the book, and what’s so wrong with it? Perceiving—or rather feeling—the pronounced attack essayed against Christianity by the so-called “New Atheists,” Spufford has penned what amounts to a response to them, attempting to side-step the technical debates which feature prominently in typical atheist-Christian dialogue, and offering instead a ‘novel’ argument about the “emotional sense” of Christianity. In a phrase, his book claims that the debates are irrelevant, because Christianity isn’t the kind of thing you can prove, and therefore the choice to believe it is an emotional one.
Spufford begins his ‘argument’ (the scare quotes are there because I’m not sure he actually argues anything) by describing the strangeness Christians present to a ‘rational’ world, particularly the world as seen by the New Atheists. Following this he documents his own unique take on sin, what he calls the “HPtFtU,” an acronym I won’t translate fully since it contains language unsuitable in civil society, but which amounts to the “Human Propensity to [Screw] things Up.” He then talks about a vague feeling of otherness and love in the universe which he equates, with equal vagueness, to some idea of ‘God’—whether Him, Her, or It. The highlight of the book is his chapter on Jesus, where he retells the Jesus story and employs, quite effectively, his fiction-writer’s pen to paint a compelling picture of Christ. This is followed by a technical chapter which deals with many of the objections to the Christ story, followed by an apologia—scratch that, since he’s not apologetic—a documentation of the screw-ups of the Church throughout history. At the close there is a short chapter on “feeling forgiven.”
At times, Spufford’s pen flows marvelously, spinning paragraphical sentences with running clauses—not without caveats—which strive to outline the uniquely emotional, fideistic, and difficult business of possessing oneself of Christian faith in a world which is populated by doubts that hail from the heights of the universe down to the depths of the very human heart. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. In fact, the ordering of the above list of the book’s contents gives more clarity to the book than it has, because while sometimes Spufford’s lengthy sentences spin elegant webs, sometimes they merely convolute ideas. I found convolution to be more prominent than elegance.
But above and beyond Spufford’s prose, the simplest and most profound criticism I have of the book is that it is un-principled. By that I mean that it is a book which lacks a unifying principle. Granted, there are moments when the rhetoric sounds great, as when Spufford tells the story of Jesus, or in one place where he takes those who appeal to the Gnostic scriptures to task, or when he rightly cuts the New Atheists down a few notches, or when he defends the Anglican church against the accusation of financial abuse (for the record, Anglicans, while possessing resources, make almost no profit). Those moments are golden, and Spufford’s wit and clarity serve well to expose ridiculousness. The good vibes one gets from such perspicacious rhetoric go a long way to crediting the reviewers who loved Unapologetic.
At the same time, and intermingled with these, other moments in the book hint at significant problems and ought to ring our alarm bells. These passages, like a common thread throughout the book, share a rhetorical ‘feel’—in each case Spufford distances himself from something unpopular in Christianity. In short, he distances himself from Scripture, from Christians who believe in Scripture literally, and, as a consequence of these, from questions of value. The result is that, combined with the force of Spufford’s winsome rhetoric, these movements create a set of rhetorically feel-good moments. We feel justified in dismissing, with the wave of Spufford’s pen, those elements of Christianity which are dicomfitting. The overall result is that Spufford situates himself at the centre of what he holds to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ Christianity, and he does this by distancing himself from what he regards as deviations. He takes the principles out of Christianity, and what is left is, consequently, an un-principled book.
For a moment, let’s take a deeper look at the following passage, where Spufford waxes eloquent about the relationship between his HPtFtU and the Genesis account:
You can see this happening in the very first version of the idea, the Hebrew myth of the Fall in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. Once, says Genesis, God planned for human beings to live in immortal happiness, but then—Adam, Eve, tree, hiss, munch, whoops, figleaves, goodbye. It wasn’t God’s fault. It was down to us, or at least to our representatives Mr Earth and Mrs Woman (which is what ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ mean), manifesting the familiar human capacity to screw the pooch, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to mess up a good thing. But that just shifts the problem. It only moves God from being directly responsible for the Fall, to being responsible for the situation that was responsible for the Fall. The cut-out or circuit-breaker Genesis tries to install between God and a derelict creation simply recreates the difficulty. And in any case, Genesis is fatally confused about where HPtFtU comes from. Genesis chapter 2 wants to have it both ways, with the nasty side of our free will both causing the disaster and, somehow, being caused by it as well. We’re fallen because of our HPtFtU; we have the HPtFtU because, um, we’re fallen.
Spufford then caps off this thought with the following criticism in the immediately following paragraph:
Not only is this no good to us as history, as almost all Christians know, it isn’t even any use as a story. (101-102)
Observe how the flourish of pen handily dismisses the unpopular interpretation of text. Genesis is ‘myth’ (and Spufford doesn’t mean mythic, as in a specific genre of literature, but reductionistically as ‘mere story’). It is a myth, according to Spufford, the purpose of which is to mitigate the problem of evil as it pertains to God and mankind. And, in his estimation, it is therefore “fatally confused” because it doesn’t understand where Spufford’s HPtFtU comes from.
Pause. Consider that last piece of thought for a moment: Spufford concludes that the Bible is incorrect because it doesn’t conform with his novel perception of what is particularly wrong with the world. But the primary purpose of Genesis 3 is not to smooth the difficulties between God and human evil, but to diagnose and explain what’s wrong with the world. The primary way that Genesis 3 describes this problem is by showing that we are people who, given the choice between God’s way and ours, have consistently and persistently chosen ours. Genesis 3 isn’t so much about what’s wrong with the world as it is with what’s wrong with us. The problem is that we are rebels. Wait a minute—seen this way, hasn’t Spufford, in elevating his own take on sin above that of the scriptures, exhibited this very tendency? We might rightly conclude that it is Spufford who is fatally confused.
Pause again. Even in the above quoted paragraph, Spufford has made several errors. First, the account of the fall is in Genesis 3, and not Genesis 2. Second, Adam does mean ‘earth’ (or ‘human’), but Eve means ‘living.’ Are these deal breakers? By no means, but they do reveal that Spufford’s tendency to wax eloquently is matched by a carefree approach to what he’s saying, and at the very same time you’re celebrating his nice prose, you’ve got to be on the alert for these kinds of subtle errors.
Now to Spufford’s next sentence, that “Not only is this no good to us as history, as almost all Christians know, it isn’t even any use as a story.” This sentence, apart from being blatantly false, is also rudely dismissive. To accent it further, and just so we don’t miss his point, Spufford continues this sentiment with a footnote where he claims that everyone believes this, “Except for some really stubborn Americans.” Forget the fact that I am an American (which is irrelevant), this is blatantly untrue. There are a host of people across the globe who take the Genesis account literally. Most of global Anglicanism, situated in the 2/3 world, holds to a literal Genesis account. Many people in Spufford’s bonny ‘ole England hold to a literal Genesis account. And that makes his continuation in the footnote even more absurd: “Once it became clear that truth lay elsewhere than in Genesis, religious opinion on the whole moved with impressive swiftness to accommodate the discovery.” This is simply untrue, and presented as it is, with this tone and in this place, it serves not to underline or exalt what is true about Christianity, but to divide and take pot-shots at what is culturally unpopular about Christianity. It is, in short, a prevarication designed to make one feel good about being better than those pesky, vocal Americans who hold to antiquated, colonial views. We readers are, after all, enlightened. We are even more enlightened than Genesis!
But these potshots at the culturally unpopular are not limited to this passage alone. Some time later, when speaking about Hell, Spufford writes the following:
Somehow, in hell, limitless compassion acquires very definite limits: limits so tightly drawn that in the end it becomes inescapably clear that the whole contrivance, besides being repellently sadistic in itself, is blatantly incompatible with the primary thing Christianity believes about God, and must in fact be another of the shadows of our failure, another vengeful projection of the HPtFtU of Christian humans, rather than part of the furniture of God’s universe. (181)
Hell, in other words, is impossible because God (whether ‘he,’ ‘she,’ or ‘it’ in Spufford’s estimation) is ‘limitless compassion.’ But this is an unprincipled assertion—and just to be tautologically explicit, it is unprincipled because it lacks a principal. Where did Spufford get the idea that God was limitless compassion? That’s right, from a vague feeling he experiences when he is silent before the universe. But that means that the ground on the basis of which Spufford evaluates and edits Christian doctrine is the immaterial feeling of God that Spufford has. In other words, Spufford is arguing that it is superior to take his formulations of who God is (in which he clearly eschews the record of God’s working in history), and his construct about what is wrong with the world, and then choose his personal perceptions over those which have warrants both in scripture and history. This begs the question: Why should I trust him? Oh, that’s right. I should trust him because he sounds clever while saying it.
I could document other misrepresentations of the Christian faith, but that would be to belabor the point. Suffice it to say, these two examples are indicative of the subtle undertone of the whole. It’s a bit like attempting to paint over a barn-red wall with white paint. Seemingly no matter how many coats you apply, the red still bleeds through. Spufford’s dismissive, divisive, and unprincipled arguments bleed through even his good prose. And the result is that he commits not so much overstatements of his case, but blatant misrepresentations of what constitutes the Christian faith. What makes it insidious is just how appealing it all sounds.
UPDATE: Interestingly enough, Spufford has read and responded to this review of his book. You can read his comments by following this link.